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“I retired from my fight,” Hamilton Leithauser crooned with a smirk on his first great solo tune. “I Retired”’s very existence confirms that the singer didn’t actually give up, but Leithauser’s point about getting older and figuring out how to keep creating felt like a painfully self-aware revelation upon arrival, six months after his longtime band the Walkmen announced an indefinite hiatus. “All the fire in your heart won’t help/All the smoke up in your head,” he continued, figuring that “as long as [he] can keep the train rolling, then all [his] friends will always know they’ll never be alone.” Consider it a self-fulfilling prophecy tucked inside a nugget of irony: A song called “I Retired” directly spawned Leithauser’s next musical direction.
“I Retired” was one of two songs from Leithauser’s 2014 solo debut, Black Hours, that he worked on with Rostam Batmanglij. Leithauser and the former Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist/producer apparently bonded over shooby doo wops, their deadpan version of which sounds like the Flamingos came down with a case of urban malaise. That vocal technique is all over “I Retired” and again on I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, emblematic of what makes Leithauser and Batmanglij’s first collaborative full-length the rare release that looks backwards without falling victim to retro pastiche.
With Batmanglij’s piano and Leithauser’s voice as their guiding forces, the duo answer a question that has eluded many a musician before: How do you incorporate the music of the past without losing yourself in what’s already been done? Even those beloved harmonies represent just one tool in a deep kit, right alongside Spanish guitar, Disney strings, bawdy horns, tender banjo, airy vocal loops, and cinematic reverb. Together, Leithauser and Batmanglij work their way through nearly seven decades of musical history—from doo-wop and country-rock to Leonard Cohen-style torch songs and the George Martin-indebted baroque-pop Rostam often used to make VW twinkle—but they also don’t forget who they are in the process: one of ’00s indie rock’s most charismatic singers, alongside one of its most creative songwriter-producers.
If there was any lingering doubt that Rostam was Vampire Weekend’s special sauce (before his departure earlier this year), look to I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. The convincing ease with which the duo weaves disparate musical styles together seems distinctly Rostam—the work of someone who made Afropop, calypso, ’80s synth-pop, samples from M.I.A. to Toots and the Maytals, and a half-dozen other global styles fit together within music that often was held up as the indie rock zeitgeist. Here on “You Ain’t That Young Kid,” a spirited Dylan-on-piano-and-harmonica act turns towards pleading slide guitar, then an echo chamber of angel voices, then a slow dance of ’60s organ and steel drum, then a tidy harpsichord minuet—then, impossibly, all at once. The five-minute standout ends as a gilded acoustic singalong, the overwhelming sentimentality of which is amplified by an Instagram-filter of a synth line growing underneath. Rostam’s production is highly visual, and listening to this record, you get a sense of all the colors he must see when he’s behind the boards.
But RostHam is an equal partnership, and Leithauser reminds you why you were drawn to the Walkmen in the first place. He gives what has to be his strongest and most wide-ranging collection of vocal performances on record to date, spanning from talk-crooning to punkish howling to folk-balladeering to heavenly harmonizing to raspily brooding about as he first perfected on “The Rat.”
Black Hours’ primary flaw was that it alternated sharply between Leithauser going Bublé in his own way and simply channeling his old band. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine manages to incorporate these two modes in the larger context of its 20th-century-pop scrapbook—on songs about longing and looking back, no less. And it’s the songs where Leithauser loses himself in what was and what could be that his voice sounds best. On “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up),” atop a creaking piano line and a spiraling sax solo, Leithauser screams like a man possessed that he won’t let up, but he holds it together, and the song never lets its barroom singalong quality devolve into total shambles.
This is a slightly more mature Leithauser, but that life experience can also be a curse. Over the course of the album, the streets of downtown New York become littered with memories, and even the good ones hurt a little because they’re faded now. The album is drenched in this wistful feeling, the crowning achievement of which is “When the Truth Is…” There are many moving parts that go into making this song work, from the echoing swirl of percussion and piano to the snippet of film dialogue at the end, but they’re rendered so perfectly, all you hear by the end is straight swoon. The main thing Rostam and Hamilton get right about doo-wop is that it often makes romantic yearning shimmer like a slow-moving disco ball.
Towards the beginning of the album—on “Sick as a Dog,” the song that sounds the most modern (and a little like Spoon)—Leithauser harmonizes with himself, “I use the same voice I always had.” Indeed, it’s not that Leithauser has dramatically changed since his days in the Walkmen; rather, pairing with Rostam has brought out the best in him. It’s rare for collaborative albums between known entities to feel like equal reflections of both parties, but RostHam find a middle-ground in mutual longing for the past. It’s the kind of album Leithauser can be proud of—you know, once he’s old enough to actually retire.Share